We have a ‘preferred candidate’ for Chief Constable, Lauren Poultney.
I cannot call Lauren the Chief Constable yet, because my proposal has to be confirmed by the Police and Crime Panel at a meeting on 11 June. The Police and Crime Panel is a statutory body and consists of councillors from each of the four districts – Barnsley, Doncaster, Rotherham and Sheffield – plus independent, non-councillor, members. The panel has to scrutinise the selection process, to ensure that it was fair, and consider the candidate I propose, to ensure I have made a sound choice.
Choosing a chief constable is arguably one of the most important decisions a PCC has to make. Of course, a police force is more than a chief constable, more than a senior command team; but if you have a good team at the top, that can make all the difference – one way or another. And there have been far too many anecdotes about dysfunctionality in some forces over the years. So I am pleased that we not only have the right chief constable but we can also see a strong and cohesive leadership team building around her. There is continuity with this appointment as well as change.
What the leadership team does is to provide two things: first, a clear and consistent sense of direction and purpose; and second, motivation. If the people at the top model in their own professional lives the values and commitment they want (and we need) throughout the organisation, people will respond to that. Over the past five years that is what we saw in South Yorkshire. That is what, I believe, we shall see over the next five years as we seek to keep up the present momentum, going from ‘good’ to ‘outstanding’.
Chief Constable and Commissioner
The selection process for the new chief constable extended over two days and was quite rigorous – and quite exhausting. Candidates were grilled by two panels of people: one drawn from various communities from across the county – including young people, those from minority groups, and those working in the voluntary sector – and the other consisting of representatives of the workforce – trade unions, staff associations, a women’s group, LGBT+ group, and so on.
The candidates were also tested on their ability to handle media interviews. They were asked to envisage an incident where the police had dispersed people gathering in defiance of coronavirus rules. They were then interviewed about the police response by a professional journalist, being filmed as if on TV. This latter exercise was important because anyone who aspires to be a chief constable has to be able to think on their feet and deal effectively with questions from broadcasters and journalists.
All these results came together at the final interview where I was assisted by a recently retired, and very successful, chief constable and the chair of our Independent Ethics Panel.
As we chatted after the interviews, the retired chief constable told me that, in his view, the most successful police forces were those where a good, professional relationship had been established between the chief constable and the PCC. So the appointment has implications for me as well and I will work hard to establish that relationship. As I see it, my role is to give support and encouragement to the police, while also being a critical friend – the holding to account role. If we can get that right, the next three years (my term of office) should be as fruitful as the term just ended.
Perception and reality
Shortly after I became PCC I attended a meeting in a small township/large village to discuss crime and anti-social behaviour (ASB). Beforehand, as I always do, I looked up the police data and realised that this was a place where there was little of either: no ASB had been recorded in the previous three months and the only crimes were the theft of tools from two garden sheds. This was distressing for those affected and those living around, but the truth was that this was one of the safest places in South Yorkshire. That was the reality; but it wasn’t the perception.
At the meeting, people stood up one after the other to tell me I had come to the epicentre of crime and ASB in the county. I folded up my page of statistics – there was no way they would be received with anything other than anger and disbelief – and listened carefully to what people were saying, trying to understand what would help them to feel safe even if in reality they were safe.
Part of my job is to speak to the police about this not infrequent gap between reality and perception. It’s clear that statistics are only part of it, and may not be the biggest part. The other part is the perception: whatever the statistics say, if people don’t see on a regular basis, high visibility jackets on their streets, they will not feel as safe as they should. District Commanders and their neighbourhood police teams need to think carefully about how they can make that happen.
So as I start a new term in office with a new chief constable, I think I can see one of the items for my coming meetings already – bridging the gap between reality and perception. It’s one that will not go away.
Stay safe and well.